Archive for January, 2017

18/01/2017

Ermina Montrose; or, The Cottage Of The Vale

erminamontrose1b    One fine evening, when the children were retired to rest, Ermina stole gently down stairs, and crossing through the hall to her own apartment, opened the glass door which led into the shrubbery, which she walked, and passed lightly over the lawn to a favourite walk, which was a long avenue of trees by the side of a canal, at the end of which was an elegant alcove, where she frequently delighted to seat herself, as she now did. A pleasing languor stole over her senses…
    The dews of eve that bathed the various fragrant plants and odoriferous shrubs that surrounded the spot where she was, diffused a sweet refreshing perfume, which, added to the general stillness that reigned amidst the shades of night, lulled her mind into calm repose. The images of those she loved, and had so cruelly lost, presented themselves to her imagination in the most pleasing forms, and she pictured to herself that they beheld her conduct and sufferings with approbation. “Alas!” she mentally exclaimed, “though unrelenting fate persecute and tear from me all that my soul holds dear, yet have I the soothing consolation of preserving a heart unsullied with guilt, though not free from error, and this bosom can boast of moments of happiness which the conscience of those who injure me will not suffer them to enjoy, and of which they cannot deprive me, poor and dependent as I am.”

 

 

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When your bosom starts boasting, it might be time to worry.

Emily Clark’s Ermina Montrose; or, The Cottage Of The Vale is a fairly typical second- (or third-) tier novel of the turn of the 19th century, featuring a persecuted heroine and much high-flown sentiment, but with lingering flickers of the Gothic impulse (which, indeed, would not be fully extinguished for another two decades or so). Though the persecution persists, most of the Gothic touches are confined to the first of the novel’s three volumes; after which the narrative settles down and goes through essentially the same set of cyclic motions until the three volumes have been filled—viz. our orphan heroine finds a refuge where she can work and support herself, someone traduces her character, she flees secretly for some reason or another, she struggles with poverty until she finds a refuge where she can work and support herself…

But the repetition of the action is not the major shortcoming of Ermina Montrose, which is rather that Ermina suffers more at the hands of the people who are supposed to love her than she does through the machinations of her enemies. Indeed, this is one of a worrying number of novels I’ve read recently that turn on a man’s willingness (even eagerness) to believe the worst of the woman he loves. This novel features one of the most unlikeable “heroes” of a genre that rarely seems to recognise dickish behaviour when it sees it, and Ermina’s repeated forgiveness of her lover’s distrust, tantrum-throwing and selfishness grows ever more exasperating.

While it will turn out to play the most minor of roles in the story, aside from its symbolic value —“cottage” is a signifier for a sentimental novel in the same way that “abbey” is for a Gothic novel—Ermina Montrose does open at the titular cottage; while the language – and the occasionally infelicitous grammar – used in these opening paragraphs let us know clearly what we’re in for over the next 700 pages or so:

    Embosomed in the deep romantic valley of Riversdale, stood the habitation of Colonel Montrose. Simple was its structure, being little superior to the cottages of the neighbouring rustics. Yet, with all its simplicity, dear was this abode to his feeling heart; for it had sheltered his beloved Ermina from the storms of life, and witnessed her flight to those regions of happiness, which the superior virtues of her mind rendered her worthy of attaining. The soft harmony of her voice, the æthereal sweetness of her smile, all dwelt on his imagination with forcible and pained remembrance.
    Oh! souls of sympathy, cannot ye picture to yourselves the poignant anguish which overwhelms to agony a mind of sensibility, when it has lost a tenderly beloved friend and companion? What is the grief of common souls compared to theirs, who wear not only the semblance of sorrow, but its keenest shafts penetrate their lacerated bosoms; and objects that formerly created pleasure, serve only to bring the mournful recollection, that, alas! the chief source of delight is fled for ever?

If anything has the power to divert us from our attempts to make sense of that last sentence, it is the text’s apparent revelation that this novel’s heroine is dead—but of course, this turns out to be Ermina Montrose Sr. She and Colonel Montrose married without the permission of her father, Lord Belvidere, “a haughty, imperious nobleman”, who responded not merely by disinheriting her, but by actively persecuting the young couple, who finally fled to their isolated cottage to escape his vindictive wrath. Six years of happiness which included the birth of their only child followed, but now Colonel Montrose has been widowed and left the raise his daughter alone. The narrative skips lightly over this, content with observing matter-of-factly that, Each year, as it rolled away, brought some accomplishment in Ermina nearer to perfection, until she is fourteen, at which time the Colonel decides to place her in a convent in France for two years, so that she can perfect her French.

Like many sentimental novels of this period, Ermina Montrose chooses to behave as if the French Revolution never happened; though it goes its competition one better by forgetting, evidently, that its characters aren’t Catholic, and having Ermina decide to become a nun (it is clear later that she hasn’t converted). But while they occupy a fair chunk of the first volume, Ermina’s convent experiences and friendships – and hints at interesting back-stories for several of the nuns – ultimately turn out to have nothing to do with anything; except to make me suspect, in conjunction with what happens to her once she gets out of the convent, that Emily Clark originally intended writing a much more Gothicky novel, but for some reason changed her mind and instead sent her narrative in a domestic direction over the succeeding two volumes.

Neither Ermina’s sojourn in the convent nor her entering upon her novitiate prevents every man who sees her from falling in love with her. Victim #1 is the Count de Valcour, a volatile (to say the least) young Frenchman, who goes so far as to break into the convent in order to get up close and personal with her; Victim #2 is Father Eustache, a young Benedictine monk (!!), who starts repenting his vows the moment he lays eyes on her; and Victim #3 is Lord Henry Beauchamp, the son of the Earl of Darlington, who saves Colonel Montrose from bandits. The latter is invited to accompany the Colonel on one of his visits to the convent, and the damage is done. Here, however, we get damage in the other direction too:

…she was then as much charmed with his manners as with his appearance. She thought him learned without pedantry, sensible without affectation, and animated and witty without being frivolous or a coxcomb; and she admired him mostly for not being the least vain of his person (as handsome men in general are), but apparently unconscious of possessing more beauty than what falls to the usual lot of the male part of creation…

As it turns out, it’s just as well he’s got his looks to depend upon.

Lord Henry lays indirect siege to Ermina via poetry and then, as the time for her to take the veil draws near, declares himself in frantic smuggled letters, begging her to marry him. She is moved and confused, but still intends to take her vows when her father’s health collapses—because he can’t stand her becoming a nun, as he might have wanted to mention about a year ago. Ermina decides to leave the convent, and she, her father and Lord Henry become the guests of de Valcour.

The convent may be a thing of the past, but we’re not done being Gothicky just yet:

At supper the count introduced them to Father Anselmo, a monk, his friend and confessor. Ermina felt something repugnant to her feelings in his appearance; for though his sallow countenance was always dressed in smiles, yet under those smiles she fancied lurked cruelty and deceit… He easily perceived he was no favourite with her, as he had a great deal of penetration; and the glances he sometimes gave her from his yellow eye balls were replete with venom and ill-nature…

De Valcour regrets inviting Lord Henry to his chateau from the moment he gets a good look at him. His fears are well justified, as we learn with amusing casualness that—

…this animated party had been three weeks together at the chateau, which had passed on such silken wings that it appeared but as one. In this happy interval Lord Henry had again offered himself to Ermina, who, with the sanction of her father, had accepted his addresses…

…provisional upon Lord Henry receiving the approbation and consent of his father: this probably wasn’t intended as a pot-shot at her own parents, but it sure does read that way. Lord Henry is then abruptly called back to England, to the bedside of Lord Darlington, who is seriously ill, and must part from Ermina:

A cold shiver came over him…and his eyes were dimmed with tears as he entered the carriage… He could not shake off an uncommon depression of spirits, which he feared presaged some misfortune to himself, or (who was dearer to him) his innocent and beauteous Ermina.

He’s right about that, of course; although ironically he himself is the main misfortune which strikes her.

In Lord Henry’s absence, Ermina takes to wandering the grounds of the chateau alone, and on one of her expeditions comes across a lonely cottage occupied by a young Englishwoman and an elderly Frenchwoman. This, of course, is the cue for an interpolated narrative. Long story short, Adeliza’s intended marriage to de Valcour was prevented by the revelation of him being already married, so he abducted and eventually seduced her.

Shocked by her discovery of de Valcour’s true nature, Ermina begins to consider how to help Adeliza escape, but is diverted when Colonel Montrose’s health collapses. On his deathbed, he succeeds in extracting from de Valcour all sorts of promises about Ermina’s welfare; but no sooner is he dead than the count begins laying siege to her, intercepting her correspondence with Lord Henry, refusing to let her return to the convent, and finally imprisoning her, refusing to release her until she promises to marry him. Ermina withstands all this, and at length even persuades de Valcour to let her walk in the grounds, on the score that her health is suffering from confinement. On one of these expeditions she discovers a grotto, with a cave that has been turned into an apartment in its depths. Here she overhears a terrifying conversation between Father Anselmo and another monk:

    After something that Anselmo had said, the other monk replied in an agitated voice, “Hold, ’tis cowardly to assassinate a woman, poison would be better.”
    “No,” rejoined Anselmo, “she may then by some means escape, and suspicion be infused into her bosom. She shall no longer stand between me and my interest; for, were she disposed of, I could do whatever I pleased with de Valcour, and his fortune. Call it not murder.” Here he raised his voice, his countenance assuming a more diabolical expression, which she plainly perceived, as the cowl he wore concealed but half his face. “Is it not a religious act to stab an heretic, who, wedded to the count, will raise a brood of others? Here, mark me! take this dagger, steal to her chamber in the dead of night, and point it to her breast: for I’ve decreed it; ere three days more shall pass, she dies: France shall not another week contain alive the hated offspring of Colonel Montrose.”

At this point I had high hopes of Ermina Montrose, on the level of entertainment if not as literature, exactly; but sadly from here it’s downhill all the way. The present situation resolves itself when Adeliza’s outraged brother finally catches up with de Valcour and kills him; Adeliza dies of grief; Anselmo flees, never to be seen again (alas!); and Ermina returns to the convent to recover and sort out her life. There she becomes acquainted with Lady Julia Vernon, in retreat while mourning her husband (a short interlude that gives Ermina a completely false idea of her character), who offers to carry her back to England.

From here we settle into the wash-rinse-repeat aspect of the novel. Invited to stay with Lady Julia for a time, Ermina does in the hope of finding out why Lord Henry is not responding to the letters she is now certain he is receiving. Despite her disinclination, she feels obliged sometimes to accompany Lady Julia into society, and one night is taken to Ranelagh, where a certain Mr Devereaux becomes smitten with her.

From this point, Emily Clark strives in Ermina Montrose for the kind of social satire and character types with which Frances Burney’s novels abound, but her efforts are feeble, and occasionally embarrassing (as, for instance, when she stops to explain to us that any person with a disability or some sort of deformity, or is simply not physically attractive, will invariably prove to be “deformed” on the inside, too). All sorts of eccentrics wander in an out of the narrative, in scenes that are generally tiresome, rather than amusing as they are intended to be.

Clark is on firmer ground with the endless scenes of her heroine being persecuted; and we return to this dominating theme when, as Ermina walks with Devereaux, someone steps on the train of her gown:

The intended apology died away in confused murmurs on Lord Henry’s lips, the glow of surprise faded to an ashy paleness, and instead of returning the animated smile, he received from her, with the same look of pleasure, or accepting her proffered hand…he surveyed her with a repulsive gravity, uttered in a faultering voice, a few incoherent words of congratulations on seeing her in England, coldly bowed, and left her.

Get used to it, people: scenes like this comprise most of what this novel has to offer by way of “a love story”; when, that is, Lord Henry isn’t ranting at Ermina for being a whore. (My word, not his; but that’s the gist of it.)

When she can extricate herself from Lady Julia, Ermina returns to “the cottage of the vale” and is happy there for a time, reuniting with old acquaintances, until she receives word that the bank in which her small inheritance was placed has failed, and the banker fled. Forced to find work, Ermina requests her various friends to find her a position as governess, and is taken into the country house of Sir John and Lady Assop: near neighbours of the widowed Mrs Helderton, another person who, at this time, she considers a friend. For a time all seems well: the Assops are kind, Ermina’s young pupils well-behaved, the surrounding countryside beautiful. The first reversal of fortune comes when Mrs Helderton makes it very clear that her “friendship” for Ermina has altered with the girl’s circumstances.

But if Mrs Helderston dislikes Ermina as a governess, she positively hates her when she sees that her handsome cousin, Sir Charles Melrose, is immediately attracted to her. Mrs Helderton has no intention of remaining a widow, and Sir Charles is one of the two marital prospects she is assiduously pursuing, though only her second choice. The first happens to be Lord Henry Beauchamp…

By one of those capricious chances, in which fortune delights, a friend of Lord Henry’s and Mrs Helderton’s told her in confidence (unsuspecting her designs), of the hold Ermina still had on his affections, notwithstanding he was convinced of her unworthiness, though in what manner she had improperly acted Lord Henry would never tell his friend. Enraged, that she should be slighted for this insignificant girl (as she styled her), she vowed to do every thing in her power to mortify her…

And in this respect, at least, Mrs Helderton is a woman of her word; and her machinations and their consequences will b e at the root of much of what Ermina suffers over the following two volumes.

For a time Ermina is oblivious to the evil currents that are beginning to swirl around her; but one evening she overhears an enlightening conversation between Mrs Helderton’s maid and the Assops’ nursery-maid:

“Sir Charles may amuse himself with her as a mistress, but she will never be any thing more honourable to him. For my part,” continued Bridget, “if I was such a noble, handsome, rich gentleman as Sir Charles…I would never take up with other people’s hangers-on… Only to think now, that this wicked Miss Montrose enticed away my dear lady’s lover Lord Henry Beauchamp, when he was in France. She spent almost all his fortune, and then ran away with another gentleman, whom she intrigued with beforehand, which broke her poor father’s heart. There’s a wicked hussy for you, when she knew my lady was engaged to Lord Henry…and the poor gentleman, who was as beautiful a man as ever the sun shone on, is now wasting to a shadow: for nobody thinks he’ll live, it hurts him so, to think of her bad conduct; and I’m sure I wonder such a good woman as your mistress keeps the naughty creature in her house. Now you can’t be surprised that my lady hates her; and then to think, that she should make Sir Charles in love with her too! I do believe her to be a witch.”

This speech is a good example of the kind of talk that follows Ermina throughout the rest of the novel, always a framework of circumstantial truth surrounding the worst possible interpretation of events. But while it may be understandable that people who don’t really know Ermina may begin to lend an ear to the constant denigration of her character, there is no excuse for the people who are supposed to know and love her.

Annoyingly enough, the main thing that Ermina carries away from her enlightening eavesdropping (she does that a lot, though the narrative takes pains to find excuses) is the bulletin about Lord Henry’s failing health. This possibility preys upon her mind, affecting her spirits and her health so that everyone notices—including Sir Charles, who is so moved by her evident distress that he impulsively proposes marriage. Caught between her lingering feelings for Lord Henry, her awareness that he now despises her, and her gratitude for the generosity of Sir Charles, whom she likes and admires, Ermina wrestles with herself but finally accepts his proposal. News of the engagement spreads quickly, pleasing the Assops and causing everyone but Mrs Helderton to treat Ermina with increased respect.

Soon after this, however, Ermina is walking out when she is accosted by a gipsy—who turns out (for reasons not worth getting into) to be Lord Henry in disguise. She is taken so much by surprise that she stays to hear what he has to say for himself. As she suspected, their letters were intercepted; and Lord Henry knew nothing concrete until the news of Colonel Montrose’s death was reported. Shortly afterwards, still trying to bring his father (who objected to Ermina’s all-but-penniless state) to consent to their marriage, Lord Henry received further word of Ermina through a French friend of Lord Darlington’s, who mentioned to him a certain beautiful Englishwoman who was known by common report to be the mistress of the libertine Count de Valcour:

“I now attributed your neglect of me to a passion for my rival; and rage, jealousy, and contempt for your depraved conduct and infidelity, seized complete possession of my soul…”

Then the meeting at Ranelagh: he wondered at seeing her with Lady Julia—but assumed she had deceived her, too; he noted her mourning—and concluded it was for de Valcour… And so on. Finally he tore himself away from London and went wandering, ending up by pure chance at The Cottage Of The Vale, where Ermina’s maid, Therese, told him what had actually gone on in France:

“But, oh heavens! when she related in those simple unadorned terms, which so forcibly convey the truth, the various miseries and misfortunes in which you had been involved by the treachery and deceit of your worthless enemies, I execrated my credulity and unfeeling behaviour, reflecting with remorse that I ought, before I had condemned, to have heard your justification, and enable you to defend yourself against every calumnious aspersion.”

On the back of this, Lord Henry confronts the gossipy Baron de Belmont:

“…whom I brought to a confession that he had been instigated by Lord Darlington (whom de Valcour had treacherously informed of our attachment, and at the same time suppressed our letters) to invent those falsehoods of you, having himself never seen, or even heard of you and de Valcour, and would not for any consideration have aided such a scheme, if my father had not represented you as a girl of infamous character, who wished to seduce me to marry her.”

Now—you’d think an experience like this might have taught Lord Henry a thing or two, but you’d be very wrong: he spends the rest of the novel listening to anyone who has a bad word to say about Ermina; when, that is, he isn’t busy behaving like a dick of monumental proportions.

When telling Ermina’s story, Therese also informed Lord Henry of her engagement to Sir Charles Melrose; and now, though she forgives him for his distrust of her, Ermina insists that honour forbids her to break with the baronet. Lord Henry begs and pleads, but she is adamant; which produces this outburst:

Almost frantic at the idea of losing her, Lord Henry implored her compassion, intreating her not to sacrifice their happiness to a vain phantom of honour. This she steadily refused; and, irritated, abandoned to passion by the stings of disappointed affection, he exclaimed: “Then you have never loved me, deceitful girl, if I am to be resigned for the empty opinion of the world! You must prefer Sir Charles; but I swear by God, that I will not live to see you his wife—either one or other of us must fall. I will hasten instantly to him and demand satisfaction.”

Ah! – the always charming and by no means a sign that you are dealing with a narcissistic sociopath if-I-can’t-have-you-no-one-will gambit! (Which was last seen around these parts in Barford Abbey.) I must admit, though, to being intrigued by Lord Henry’s casual dismissal of “honour” as a mere excuse, given how many novels of this period have their characters tying themselves in knots over merely perceived demands of honour, let alone a case as clear as this one.

Ermina manages to calm Lord Henry down, admitting that she still loves him, and pleading with him neither to risk his own life nor Sir Charles’s. Finally they part—forever, as far as Ermina is concerned. Preparations for the wedding continue, and the entire party travels from the country to Sir John’s house in London, where the ceremony to to take place. All is well until a few days before, when Sir Charles’s behaviour towards Ermina suddenly changes. He offers no explanation, however (of course not!), and Ermina is at a loss until the party attends a play: so emotionally caught up in the miseries on stage that she nearly swoons, Ermina is just recovering when…

…the first object she saw was Lord Henry Beauchamp contemplating her with an air of the deepest dejection, apparently regardless of every one but herself, whilst Sir Charles surveyed him with a fierce and sullen countenance…

Sure enough, the threatened duel takes place, though at Sir Charles’s seeking, and on the morning of his wedding-day!—and it is Sir Charles who gets the worst of it, being carried back to the Assops’ covered in blood and not expected to live. Mrs Helderton has been in the mix lately, so we are not much surprised at this, even if Ermina is; and in a state of guilt and shock, contemplating Sir Charles’s death on one hand and Lord Henry either under arrest or fleeing the country, she flees herself, slipping out of the house unseen and making sure no-one knows where she has gone (and that no-one will be able to find her, should things prove not quite so grim as anticipated, sigh).

Under the name of “Miss Smith” (no really), Ermina finds lodgings – poor, but with a kind landlady – and work, being employed to do fancy needlework by a French modiste. Though tormented by not knowing whether Sir Charles is alive or dead, and Lord Henry consequently safe, under arrest or on the run (it doesn’t occur to her to buy a newspaper), Ermina settles into her new, narrow existence until discovered by the dissolute Sir Patrick O’Neil, to whom she was introduced at Lady Julia’s. He informs his good friend, Mr Glencarnock – “an ugly, little, hump-backed man” – and the two begin persecuting her, both determined to obtain her in one capacity or another. Glencarnock, indeed, finally proposes marriages—provided Ermina is willing to keep it a secret.

In the face of this harassment, Ermina starts regretfully making plans to change her lodgings; but this is forestalled by an offer of work as a live-in seamstress for a certain Colonel Rivers. She accepts this offer with relief, only to be shocked by the discovery that – duh! – she has been decoyed into a trap by Glencarnock. To her credit, Ermina shows some backbone and makes several unsuccessful attempts to escape, failing narrowly only when she suffers a bad fall, before Glencarnock unwisely gets into a physical confrontation with her over the key to her room and is left sprawling with a head injury. Ermina takes to her heels and is fortunate enough to find someone willing to help her, one “Zemin Linmore”.

Here erupts one of Ermina Monstrose‘s most absurd subplots; though its absurdity cannot compensate for its bad taste. Linmore turns out to be the son of a Native American chief – no, really – who has been handed over to one Captain Linmore to be raised and educated as an English gentleman. The narrative goes on and on about how handsome Zemin is, how good, how generous, how high-principled, how accomplished…before shaking its head over how sad it is that he isn’t white, without which the rest means nothing. Zemin falls in love with Ermina, of course, and equally of course knows it’s futile, since he isn’t white. He finally leaves the country to try and get over his hopeless passion—and when a newspaper reports that his ship sank with all hands lost, it is accompanied by a straight-faced suggestion that an early death was a fate to be desired, considering that he wasn’t white, and therefore could never be happy. (Too bad for the rest of the passengers and crew…)

Anyway— Zemin cannot prevent Ermina being dragged back by Glencarnock’s servants, but he arranges her escape and places her with friends of his, Quakers called Mr and Mrs Fairfield. Here the wash-rinse-repeat cycle starts again: Ermina is safe and happy for a time, until the Fairfields carry her to London, on a visit to their far less unworldly son and daughter-in-law. Against her will, Ermina is taken out into society, usually under the chaperonage of a Mrs Ballenden, where she attracts the attention of an elderly nobleman, the Earl of Valency, to whom she is also drawn for reasons she cannot articulate. (Jane Austen alert!) Other consequences are less pleasant, and include an encounter with Mrs Helderton. Soon enough, the daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, is asking pointed questions about Sir Charles Melrose, and excoriating Ermina for abusing the trust of the Fairfields:

“I have already spoken to them,” replied the quaker, “and it has occasioned a misunderstanding between them, my husband, and myself; for thy arts, of which I have been fully informed, have blinded them to believe any thing thou doth choose to advance. Verily, it was not well done of Zemin Linmore to introduce his mistress under the roof of our respectable parents, whose ill-placed charity in protecting thee, must bring disgrace on all their family.”

In the wake of this, Ermina has an excruciating encounter with her former employer, the modiste, who in front of Elizabeth addresses her as “Miss Smith”—which leaves her with nothing to do but run away again. This time she cannot find employment, and sinks into real poverty before being discovered and rescued again, this time by the same Mr Devereaux whom she met at Ranelagh, before her first encounter with Lord Henry. Devereaux finds a position for her as companion to his aunt, the eccentric Mrs St Austin. Before she leaves London, he begs her to allow him to escort her to the theatre. She feels that she cannot refuse the invitation—but of course is made to regret her decision:

…she perceived to her extreme consternation, Mrs Helderton and another lady of a most unprepossessing appearance, looking at her with a sneer on their countenances, and talking at the same time, apparently about her, to a gentleman who seemed very much interested in what they said… Suddenly, however, he turned round to seat himself by Mrs Helderton, and, overcome with joy, surprise, and terror, Ermina felt ready to faint, when their eyes at the same moment meeting, she discovered the man whom she had so long regretted, whom she fancied to be wandering, forlorn, unhappy, and anxious for her fate, far from his native country, to be now before her; for it was indeed Lord Henry…

…who behaves towards her exactly as we expect; and for a few glorious moments, Ermina reacts to it as she should:

When at liberty to reflect on the conduct of Lord Henry, she felt keener resentment against him than she could ever have thought it possible for her to feel for any person, particularly one who had so often vowed his affection for her was interwoven with his existence…How sincerely did she regret the loss she had sustained in the alienated affections of Melrose, whose faith and truth were so much more valuable than the fickle passion of Lord Henry… She regretted bitterly, that he should have prevented an union in which the greatest felicity would most probably have been her lot… She even worked up her imagination to a belief, that the story he had told her at their last interview in Devonshire, was a fabrication to exculpate himself…

Well—it’s nice while it lasts, anyway.

Ermina travels to Mrs Austin’s country estate, where she is safe and happy for a time; until—

Do I really have to say it?

First, however, Ermina interests herself in the situation of a peasant family living on the estate. Long story short (again), the beautiful daughter became the object of the lustful interest of a Squire Brandon, who to pave his own way to her, had her soldier-fiancé transferred to a regiment about to be sent overseas on active duty, while forcing Helen and her grandmother off their farm in order to deprive them of their income. Ermina relieves the immediate wants of the unfortunate women, but worries that Helen’s illness may be fatal. She and Dame Primrose agree to present an account of the circumstances to Edward’s commanding officer, in the hope that he will undo the young soldier’s transfer if he knows why it was brought about. Ermina writes a letter, stating everything she knows and asseverating her belief in the good character of all three, and Dame Primrose carries it to Carlisle. She manages to see the regimental colonel, and he does indeed read the letter—and is so affected by it that even the hopeful grandmother is surprised.

And here we get the novel’s one successful touch of humour as, thanks to Dame Primorose’s extreme country accent, Ermina does not recognise who she means when she speaks of “Lord Bochon”.

Sure enough, Lord Henry soon rocks up. He is scrupulous in assisting Dame Primrose, Helen and Edward; but when he sees Ermina, we start all over again:

“Fool, mean-spirited madman that I am, not all your infidelity and ill usage can eradicate the fatal passion you inspired, which has been my ruin… Yes, wretched woman, you have been my destruction, blasted every prospect of my happiness, and forced me to seek in battle an oblivion of my sorrows; as the fatal remembrance of your cruelty has denied me peace in this world. In a few months I quit England for ever; and in far-distant Eastern climes will bury all recollection of the falseness and treachery with which you have required my faithful love.”

He then has the gall to promise “always to be her friend”, if she will “return to the paths of honour”; warning her however that “the loss of [her] innocence is never to be recovered”.

Ermina is not unnaturally stunned by this outpouring, but as he starts to leave she insists on being heard; and again she says exactly as she should—except for not sending him on his way with a hearty wish of a close encounter between himself and a cannon-ball:

    “That you should harbour suspicion after the explanation that took place between us in Devonshire, appears to me beyond belief; for having once made me suffer from your credulity, it is certainly unpardonable of you to err a second time. I have not much to say on the subject, because I feel myself perfectly undeserving of reproach, and know not who are my accusers; but in talking of injuries you totally mistake the affair, as it is myself, and not you, that is the injured person. I compassionate, however, the weak credulity of your disposition… Perhaps you will find a pleasure…in the reflection that you have insulted a woman you pretended to love with the most gross suspicions…”
    “I would fain believe you innocent,” replied Lord Henry, “and what you affirm overwhelms me with fresh doubt, but will listen no more; warned by those, who know you and your power over me, not to attend to your fascinating voice…”
    “Alas! I see but too plainly,” exclaimed Ermina, “the extent of my misfortunes. Not any assertions of mine will make you believe me innocent, and to combat with prejudices so rooted is quite useless. And now, Lord Henry, I take my leave; yet the time I hope will come…when you will repent your too easy belief, but it will then be too late, as from this moment I obliterate all traces of you from my remembrance; and be assured, that wounded pride and injured virtue will make the task far from difficult.”

And, oh!—if only she’d meant it! If only she had married Devereaux – who is in love with her, of course – or Charles Melrose – who isn’t dead, of course. I’d’ve quite liked this novel then, or at least liked it better. Buuuuuuuut, no; and sadly, Catherine Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano remains the only novel of this era I’ve yet discovered to have its heroine respond to mistreatment by breaking with a man who doesn’t deserve her and finding one who does.

Around this time we finally get some explanation of the chain of gossip which has pursued Ermina, and how Mrs Helderton managed to rope the Earl of Darlington, the Baron de Belmont, Mr Glencarnock and even Sir Charles into her plots against the girl; convincing the latter that she was Lord Henry’s cast-off mistress, and calling various “witnesses”, including her maid, Bridget, who overheard the conversation betweem Ermina and Lord Henry in Devonshire (translated into a “secret assignation”), to back up her story.

In the latter Mrs Helderton overreached herself, having certainly not meant for Sir Charles and Lord Henry to try and kill each other; and great was her exasperation upon discovering afterwards that although she had succeeded in ruining Ermina with both men, neither of them showed the slightest increase of partiality for her. Her malice then pursued Ermina to the Fairfields, where to the existing stories another involving Zemin Linmore was added; while later, applied to by Lord Henry, who knew her only as a connection of the various interested parties, after Ermina’s disappearance from the Assops’ house, she added to the mix the assertion that her reduced circumstances forced Ermina to become the mistress of Sir Patrick O’Neil; after which she taken under the protection of Mr Devereaux.

Mrs Helderton overreaches again, this time fatally, when she sends an anonymous letter denouncing Ermina to Mrs St Austin: the latter shows the ugly epistle to its subject, and Ermina recognises the handwriting. She tells as much as she understands of the sorry tale, which isn’t that much (as she knows nothing of Mrs Helderton’s personal plans for Lord Henry and/or Sir Charles), and Mrs St Austin persuades her (or orders her) to travel to London, to seek out those to whom she believes she has been calumniated by Mrs Helderton, and to show them the letter and the handwriting. Ermina obeys, but finds everyone she needs to talk to out of the country.

Forced, reluctantly, to wait in London for their return, Ermina is at least moved to send Mrs Helderton a satirical letter, thanking her for all her good offices (not that she knows the half of it!). This is a tremendous shock for Mrs Helderton, whose guilty conscience brings on hysterics, which eventually reduce her to a convenient state of shattered health, and put her into an even more convenient mood for confession.

But that is some time in the future. First (through circumstances too dumb to be dwelt upon), Ermina goes through one more round of lonely destitution; this time being rescued by the long-forgotten Earl of Valency, who turns out to be – surprise! – her grandfather, who inherited another title after he was introduced to us as the “haughty, imperious” Lord Belvidere. His lordship has long since repented his cruel treatment of his daughter and son-in-law, and wants to make amends of sorts by re-establishing Ermina.

After that, things fall into place pretty quickly, the process being greatly assisted by Bridget who, after being sacked by Mrs Helderton, retaliates by telling the truth to the Assops; while Mrs Helderton, literally dying of shame, as we are asked to believe, calls for Lord Henry and tells him the truth. This sends him flying to Ermina, and to her feet, to beg forgiveness.

So we would hope.

And yet there is still time for one more outbreak of dickishness from Our Hero, when the altogether too forgiving Ermina rightly “determine[s] to punish him just a little for what he had caused her to suffer”, by telling him:

    “…your present confession, though it cannot restore my love, which your ill treatment of me quickly effaced, yet gains you my esteen and friendship”; and as she uttered these last words, with an assumed coldness and indifference, she held out her hand to him.
    So well did she dissemble, that with an angry and mournful air mingled with surprise, Lord Henry rejected her proffered hand. “Cruel, insulting woman,” said he, “I will not accept your friendship; your love I require or nothing. Oh! had I ever been truly valued, you would not thus have wounded my feelings by such cold language, but would eagerly have forgiven errors for which I have been sufficiently punished.”

That’s right, folks—SHE has been cruel to HIM. And, yup, SHE ends up apologising:

Lord Henry now drew from the blushing Ermina a reluctant confession, that, notwithstanding the reasons she apparently had to detest him, he had always continued dear to her…

Woman—you ought to blush…

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16/01/2017

A royal liar

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There’s a much more interesting story behind my latest Reading Roulette pick, Emily Clark’s Ermina Montrose; or, The Cottage Of The Vale, than we find between its covers.

That reference on the title page of this sentimental novel from 1800 to “the late Colonel Frederick” is shorter and more discreet than that which graces the title page of Clark’s earlier novel, Ianthé; or, The Flower Of Caernarvon, where the author’s grandfather is boldly announced to be “son of Theodore, King of Corsica”: all in all, a statement which for all its brevity contains a considerable amount of misleading information.

Theodor Stephan Freiherr von Neuhoff was a German soldier of fortune who, in the course of a career dabbling in political intrigue all over Europe and the Mediterranean, convinced a group of Corsican rebels that he could help them overthrow the Genoese rule of their island—and promised to do so in exchange for being crowned king of Corsica. Somehow von Neuhoff managed to acquire military backing from the Bey of Tunis, and landed on the island in March, 1736. The locals held up their end of the bargain and had the adventurer crowned as Theodore I of Corsica, but the conflict against the Genoese forces was a failure. Theodore fled Corsica in November, ostensibly to raise more support and funds: a project which ended ignominiously when he was imprisoned for debt in Amsterdam.

Somewhat surprisingly, Theodore did not give up his efforts, but arranged to supply the rebels with arms, and himself returned to the conflict on several occasions; but the rebels made no headway against the incumbent forces. Theodore’s next stop was England, again with the aim of raising support—and where again he ended up in debtors’ prison, where he was confined for some six years. This time he did give up, freeing himself by declaring bankruptcy—and by making over his kingdom to his creditors (!). He died only a year later, in 1756, having been supported to the end by various friends, including Horace Walpole.

In 1750, shortly after King Theodore was imprisoned in London, a certain Colonel Frederick appeared upon the scene. He too was German, and had served in the army of Frederick II of Prussia, before entering the service of the Duke of Württemberg. When Theodore died, Colonel Frederick began publicly mourning his father and calling himself the Prince of Capera; establishing his position more firmly by publishing Memoirs of Corsica, Containing the Natural and Political History of that Important Island in 1768.

Over the following years, the Colonel managed to manoeuvre his way into high society, becoming an intimate of the royal princes (for whose benefit he tried, but failed, to raise loans on the Continent); but at length his life began to unravel. For many years he had been sustained – just – by a pension paid by the Duchess of Württemberg; and when this was stopped his situation became desperate. He began to show signs of mental instability and to talk of suicide—and in 1797 he acted on his threat, shooting himself outside Westminster Abbey. A kind coroner’s jury ruled that he had been of unsound mind, and he was buried in the churchyard of St Ann’s Church in Soho—next to his “father”. Friends who had failed to assist him while he was alive arranged for a plaque near his grave, declaring Colonel Frederick to be indeed the son of Theodore, and, A finished Gentleman; in honour, honesty, and truth, he was princely.

However, The European Magazine; and London Review, reporting the story, appended to it a statement from “a Gentleman who was for many years on terms of intimacy with him”, who declared his royal heritage a fabrication, but agreed that he was very like Theodore in being also a German adventurer:

“He arrived much about the same time that Theodore died, and finding the people take a kind of interest in the hapless fate of a man who they were told was a King, Mr Frederick hit upon the expedient of passing as his son, and it succeeded. The assertion could not easily be contradicted. The fact did not merit investigation, and it was everywhere believed that he was the son of Theodore… Excessive vanity was the weak point of Colonel Frederick’s character, but in almost every other point of view his qualities were of the most estimable kind.”

Aside from describing Colonel Frederick’s personal tragedy, the magazine report makes mention of the fact that he left behind, A daughter and, we believe, four grand-children. One of the latter was Emily Clark, already earning money as a painter of miniatures, and whose work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1799. Like so many other women across the 18th and 19th centuries, Clark also tried to supplement her family’s slender income by writing. She published Ianthé in 1798, by subscription: the reviewers were kind, if not effusive, and subscribers – including the royal princes – were generous. When she tried the same expedient two years later, however, she was less successful; no doubt the story had worn a little thin. She continued to publish, writing poetry and three more novels over the following twenty years; but the truth is, she wasn’t a very good writer, and no-one took much notice.

Nothing much else is known about Emily Clark, although her situation and her attempt to address it via subscription publication was referenced in Peter Garside’s essay, Subscribing Fiction in Britain, 1780–1829, which brackets her with the unfortunate young widow, Lady Leigh, who published her husband’s Munster Abbey by subscription after his premature death.

Alas! – would that Ermina Montrose were half as entertaining as Sir Samuel Edgerton’s Leigh’s magnum opus

Though the subscriptions themselves dropped off, and princes and members of the aristocracy are largely conspicuous by their absence in spite of the novel’s dedication to the Countess of Shaftesbury, there is one name of interest on the list which prefaces Clark’s novel—though we may suspect it is there out of charity rather than judgement:

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(I’m guessing those are the same Dashwoods who subscribed to Munster Abbey.)

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12/01/2017

Miscellaneous Pieces, In Prose

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To date we have seen the various tropes that would finally come together to form the Gothic novel appear in fits and starts, usually putting in only brief appearances within the framework of the sentimental novel. The next fictional step in the process was a mere fragment of prose, an experimental piece of writing that appeared amongst a number of non-fiction essays and critical writings that comprise 1773’s Miscellaneous Pieces, In Prose.

John Aikin was a qualified doctor who practised for some years in the north of England before relocating to Norfolk and finally to London, where he gave up his medical career to concentrate on writing. Initially Aikin was known for his pamphlets of social criticism and his views on the liberty of the conscience, but later he became the first editor of The Monthly Magazine.

Anna Laetitia Aikin, now better known by her married name of Barbauld, is an important figure in late 18th century literature, until her political opinions (viewed as “radical” and “unpatriotic”) killed her popularity in the early 19th century, and saw her largely expunged from the record; although various feminist writers are now attempting to re-establish her. At the outset of her career, she worked as a teacher while publishing treatises on childhood education and stories for children; her theories on education were widely adopted. She was one of the first female literary critics, and later the editor of an anthology of 18th century British novels; she was also a poet and essayist of note. In conjunction with her brother, John, across 1792-1795 she wrote and published Evenings At Home, a set of writings intended to encourage family readings, particularly amongst the newly literate, which were hugely popular all over Europe.

However, John and Anna Laetitia Aikin first published together in 1773. Their Miscellaneous Pieces, In Prose is exactly what its title suggests, a collection of writings of various themes and approaches, but mostly focused upon how art and literature achieve their effects. It has been asserted that Anna Laetitia wrote the bulk of these pieces, and while no justification for this view has been forthcoming, I’m inclined to agree with it for reasons of my own. Reading these essays close together, it is evident that there are two different voices within the writings, and that the major contributor (i) is familiar with the state of English popular fiction; and (ii) has a sense of humour.

Though only a sliver of this volume is relevant to our purposes, here is a brief overview of the rest of the contents:

On The Province Of Comedy: – an essay describing the functioning of “the ludicrous” in plays, and distinguishing between the effects achieved through character, and those achieved through incident.

The Hill Of Science, A Vision: – an allegorical sketch (populated with symbolic characters, a la John Bunyan) differentiating the pursuit of fame and the pursuit of happiness.

Seláma; An Imitation Of Ossian: – a florid tale of medieval conflict and doomed love. Although this passage doesn’t get highlighted in discussions of this collection (possibly because of the still-ongoing debate about “Ossian”), it too presents a number of the themes and situations that would later sustain the Gothic novel.

Against Inconsistency In Our Expectations: – a philosophical essay arguing for reasonable expectations and ambitions as the basis of happiness and content (and warning about the reverse).

The Canal And The Brook. A Reverie: – a romantic piece defending the irregular beauty of the brook against the sterile utility of the canal (with both bodies of water speaking for themselves).

On Monastic Institutions: – an essay arguing that despite the inherent failings of the whole Catholics-and-monks arrangement (the Aikins were Nonconformists), monasteries played an important role in education and the preservation and propagation of fine literature and art; and were also important in a broad moral sense.

On The Heroic Poem Of ‘Gondibert’: – the toughest piece of the lot, an overlong examination of the criticisms made of William Davenant’s epic poem, Gondibert, and an equally overlong defence of it.

A Tale: – another allegorical story, about the coming to earth of the children of the gods: Love, Joy, Hope, Sorrow, etc., etc.

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The remaining three pieces need to be examined in more detail, as they both shed some light on the peculiar mindset which we have noticed in many of the novels of this period, and point forward to the further development of this branch of writing.

On Romances, An Imitation is an essay commenting upon the peculiar place occupied in society by the writer of popular fiction, pointing out that while the products of most professions (concrete or theoretical) reach only a limited and pre-defined audience, the writer of fiction can reach almost everyone. It then segues into the question (so very pertinent in the second half of the 18th century, when the sentimental novel was at its peak and the Gothic novel on the horizon) of why reading about other people’s miseries should be so attractive to so many:

It is, indeed, no ways extraordinary that the mind should be charmed by fancy, and attracted by pleasure; but that we should listen to the groans of misery, and delight to view the exacerbations of complicated anguish, that we should chuse to chill the bosom with imaginary fears, and dim the eyes with fictitious sorrow, seems a kind of paradox of the heart…

(“Complicated anguish”—goodness me, what a perfect summation of 18th century fiction!)

An Enquiry Into Those Kinds Of Distresses Which Excite Agreeable Sensations is an examination of a phenomenon which we have noticed often enough at this blog: the tendency of sentimental novels to pile on the misery, not infrequently to the extent of a thoroughly unhappy ending, and featuring scenes wherein other people’s sufferings are not only treated as a kind of performance art, a perverse “entertainment”, but as a source of empathetic emotion so strong that it can induce crying and fainting in the other characters: which is, however, tacitly viewed as a desirable, even pleasurable, outcome. The underlying implication is that readers would, likewise, find scenes of misery pleasurable:

It is undoubtedly true, though a phenomenon of the human mind difficult to account for, that the representation of distress frequently gives pleasure; from which general observation many of our modern writers of tragedy and romance seem to have drawn this inference, that in order to please they have nothing to do than paint distress in natural and striking colours. With this view, they heap together all the afflicting events and dismal accidents their imagination can furnish; and when they have half broke the reader’s heart, they expect he should thank them for his agreeable entertainment…

(“Afflicting events and dismal accidents”— Note to self: write an analysis of 18th century sentimental literature and publish it under that title.)

Anna Laetitia (and I’m quite sure this is Anna Laetitia talking) goes on to reprove contemporary authors for overdoing it; or at least, for being indiscriminate in the kinds and degrees of miseries that they pile into their novels:

The view or relation of mere misery can never be pleasing. We have, indeed, a strong sympathy with all kinds of misery; but it is a feeling of pure unmixed pain, similar in kind, though not equal in degree to what we feel for ourselves on the like occasion; and never produces that melting sorrow, that thrill of tenderness, to which we give the name of pity. There are two different sensations, marked by very different external expression. One causes the nerves to tingle, the flesh to to shudder, and the whole countenance to be thrown into strong contractions; the other relaxes the frame, opens the features, and produces tears…

Of the latter she then goes on to add:

…there must be some other sentiment combined with this kind of instinctive sympathy, before it becomes in any degree pleasing, or produces the sweet emotion of pity. This sentiment is love, esteem, the complacency we take in the contemplation of beauty, of mental or moral excellence, called forth and rendered more interesting, by circumstances of pain and danger. Tenderness is, much more properly than sorrow, the spring of tears; for it affects us in that manner whether combined with joy or grief; perhaps more in the former case than the latter. And I believe we may venture to assert that no distress which produces tears is wholly without a mixture of pleasure…

While she is speaking in the context of the novel, we note that Anna Laetitia is here referring to the social theories expounded by the Deists (which we considered in detail with respect to James R. Foster’s History Of The Pre-Romantic Novel In England), who contended that the indulgence of positive emotions – those name-checked here, love, esteem, pity, tenderness – made the individual a better, a more moral person. (The downside of this is that the pursuit of “sensibility” produced a lot of ridiculous posturing, both fictional and in reality.)

The essay then goes on to argue that in this arena, the novel has a great advantage over the drama, because it is able to focus upon the small and the delicate, whereas plays have to strive for big effects. Yet it is the following criticism of where novels tend to get it wrong that really grabs the attention:

Tragedy and romance-writers are likewise apt to make too free with the more violent expressions of passion and distress, by which means they lose their effect. Thus an ordinary author does not know how to express any strong emotion otherwise than by swooning or death; so that a person experienced in this kind of reading, when a girl faints away at parting with her lover, or a hero kills himself for the loss of his mistress, considers it as the established etiquette upon such occasion, and turns over the pages with the utmost coolness and unconcern…

More ‘Advice To Aspiring Writers’ follows:

Scenes of distress should not be too long continued… It is…highly necessary in a long work to relieve the mind by scenes of pleasure and gaiety; and I cannot think it so absurd a practice as our modern delicacy has represented it, to intermix wit and fancy with the pathetic, provided care be taken not to check the passions while they are flowing… Those who have touched the strings of pity with the finest hand have mingled light strokes of pleasantry and mirth in their most pathetic passages. Very different is the conduct of many novel writers, who by plunging us into scenes of distress without end or limit, exhaust the powers, and before the conclusion either renders us insensible to every thing, or fix a real sadness upon the mind…

…or induce uncontrollable giggling, as the case might be.

Interestingly enough, the essay concludes by suggesting that the over-indulgence of “sensibility” tends to blunt the capacity for sympathy and pity, rather than augment it—as was contended by many of the Deists, who viewed the novel as a sort of training exercise, to be used to keep the emotions flexible when no real circumstances of misery were available. Specifically, it is argued, novels raise virtuous emotions without offering an outlet for them in action, and this in turn blunts and inhibits those emotions. Furthermore, by making misery too “pretty”, novels tend to give people a disgust of the real thing, killing the charitable impulse.

But the best novels do exactly what they are intended to do, make people better for reading them:

Yet there is a species of this kind of writing which must ever afford an exquisite pleasure to persons of taste and sensibility; where noble sentiments are mixed with well fancied incidents, pathetic touches with dignity and grace, and invention with chaste correctness.

Alas! – no examples are offered. Instead, the allegorical A Tale follows.

But while these views on the state of literature, circa 1770, are fascinating, what we’re really here for is a related essay.

One of the most influential pieces of writing published during the 18th century was Edmund Burke’s 1757 essay, A Philosophical Enquiry Into The Origin Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime And Beautiful, which first argued for the inherent pleasure of apparently negative situations and emotions. His arguments, much more thoroughly and emphatically argued, are generally those we have just seen used by Anna Laetitia in her contention that, No distress which produces tears is wholly without a mixture of pleasure. Burke, too, is the origin of the argument for two different physical reactions to different kinds or degrees of misery: One causes the nerves to tingle, the flesh to to shudder, and the whole countenance to be thrown into strong contractions; the other relaxes the frame, opens the features, and produces tears.

Here, however, we are concerned with the first reaction. It was Burke’s belief that:

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature…is Astonishment; and Astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.

Critically in respect of the development of the Gothic novel, which seized this idea and ran with it, Burke further contended that the ruling principle of the sublime was terror—that is, the sublime could be so overwhelming as to induce a fear that was nevertheless pleasurable.

This is the point picked up in On The Pleasures Derived From Objects Of Terror. Having considered in the previous essay the pleasures of misery, this one considers the still more perverse pleasures of terror, at least in the realm of literature. An argument is made here that the power of the tale of terror—one shared by all fiction, to a greater or lesser extent–is its capacity to create suspense and raise curiosity:

We rather chuse to suffer the smart pain of a violent emotion than the uneasy craving of an unsatisfied desire. That this principle, in many instances, may involuntarily carry us through what we dislike, I am convinced from experience. This is the impulse which renders the poorest and most insipid narrative interesting when we once get fairly into it; and I have frequently felt it with regard to our modern novels, which, if lying on my table, and taken up in an idle hour, have led me through the most tedious and disgusting pages, while, like Pistol eating his leek, I have swallowed and execrated to the end. And it will not only force us through dullness, but through actual torture…

(Hey, we’ve all been there!)

But is this really sufficient to account for the willingness, eagerness, of readers to be scared?

    This solution, however, does not satisfy me with respect to the well-wrought scenes of artificial terror which are formed by a sublime and vigorous imagination. Here, though we know before-hand, what to expect, we enter into them with eagerness, in quest of a pleasure already experienced. This is the pleasure constantly attached to the excitement of surprise from new and wonderful objects. A strange and unexpected event awakens the mind, and keeps it on the stretch; and where the agency of invisible beings is introduced, of “forms unseen, and mightier far than we”, our imagination, darting forth, explores with rapture the new world which is laid open to its view, and rejoices in the expansion of its powers. Passion and fancy co-operating elevate the soul to its highest pitch; and the pain of terror is lost in amazement.
    Hence, the more wild, fanciful, and extraordinary are the circumstances of a scene of horror, the more pleasure we receive from it…

(So the next time someone asks me why I like horror movies, I’ll have an answer.)

In this context, we are given some examples—One Thousand And One Nights (aka The Arabian Nights), in particular the stories of Aladdin and Sinbad; The Castle Of Otranto (naturally); and a particular segment of Tobias Smollett’s Ferdinand, Count Fathom:

…where the hero, entertained in a lone house in a forest, finds a corpse just slaughtered in the room where he is sent to sleep, and the door of which is locked upon him…

But is not this essay in itself which qualifies Miscellaneous Pieces, In Prose for a place in the timeline of the Gothic Novel, but the fact that it is appended by an attempt at the sort of writing just described.

Sir Betrand, A Fragment finds its eponymous hero lost on the moors with night closing in. He is close to despair when he hears a tolling bell, and sees too a distant light. He follows these welcome signals to the edge of a moat surrounding a desolate and crumbling castle. He ventures across the draw-bridge into the courtyard, and finally works up the courage to knock upon the massive doors of the castle proper; even as the faint light comes and goes, sometimes plunging him into total darkness:

A third time he knocked, and a third time all was still. He then fell back to some distance that he might discern whether any light could be seen in the whole front—It again appeared in the same place and quickly glided away as before—at the same instant a deep sullen toll sounded from the turret. Sir Bertrand’s heart made a fearful stop—He was a while motionless; then terror impelled him to make some hasty steps towards his steed—but shame stopt his flight; and urged by honour, and a resistless desire of finishing the adventure, he returned to the porch; and working up his soul to a full steadiness of resolution, he drew forth his sword with one hand, and with the other lifted up the latch of the gate. The heavy door, creaking upon its hinges, reluctantly yielded to his hand—he applied his shoulder to it and forced it open—he quitted it and stept forward—the door instantly shut with a thundering clap. Sir Bertrand’s blood was chilled—he turned back to find the door, and it was long ere his trembling hands could seize it—but his utmost strength could not open it again…

Forced to go onwards, Sir Bertrand finds more strange and terrifying adventures awaiting him, including an encounter with a ghostly figure with a bloody stump instead of a hand. He makes his way into a huge room occupied only by a coffin:

At the same moment the lid of the coffin flew open, and the bell tolled. The flame still glided forwards, and Sir Bertrand resolutely followed, till he arrived within six paces of the coffin. Suddenly, a lady in a shrowd and black veil rose up in it, and stretched out her arms towards him…

And so on…but, critically, to no conclusion. Sir Bertrand, A Fragment is just a fragment, with no beginning or end, and no explanation of its events—and it is precisely this, the context-free and therefore disorientating nature of Sir Bertrand’s adventures, that gives it its power. (Whereas the later Gothic novels, feeling obliged to explain themselves, very often fall apart at the last.) This piece of short fiction, only 1500 words long, packing into its narrow confines an amusing plethora of touches later to become tropes, has long been recognised as an important step in the evolution of literary horror in Britain: no other piece of writing at this time is so intent upon horrors for their own sake.

We should note too that Sir Bertrand’s behaviour mirrors that attributed to readers by the author when explaining the attractions of the horror story, wherein he chooses to enter the castle rather than flee by, A resistless desire of finishing the adventure. Knowing, however terrifying, is better than not knowing.

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